Air Force plans two-year delay in developing new Cruise Missile

The B-52H Stratofortress bomber will likely carry the new missiles developed by the program. United States Air Force

The Air Force now plans a two-year delay in the development of a new $1.3 billion weapon to replace today's nuclear-capable Air Launched Cruise Missile aboard bomber aircraft, according to budget documents submitted to Congress last week.

Under current plans, the service in fiscal 2013 would spend $2 million to continue work on a secret "Analysis of Alternatives" that weighs various technological options for the new missile, called the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon or "LRSO" for short.

However, the "LRSO program start [is] delayed two years," the Air Force states in newly released charts on research and development funding. The service will save $39.4 million in its five-year budget plan by postponing the beginning of the cruise missile's technology development phase from fiscal 2013 to 2015, according to the documents.

In debuting its 2013 budget request on Feb. 13, the Defense Department announced a number of delays to other nuclear weapons programs. Those included two-year schedule slips for fielding both the Ohio-class replacement submarine and refurbished versions of the B-61 bomb.

The Pentagon did not reveal in several budget rollout reports and press conferences, though, that it was planning a similar two-year delay for the new cruise missile. A Defense Department spokeswoman this week deferred comment on the omission to the Air Force, which did not respond by press time to a question on the matter.

Maj. Gen. William Chambers, the Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, did acknowledge the delay during a Feb. 17 appearance at a nuclear weapons symposium in Arlington, Va., according to the independent news publication

An official in the Air Force's nuclear office on Friday said the service postponed launching the cruise missile program because other efforts simply proved more important as defense spending tightens.

"The LRSO contract award was delayed until [fiscal] '15 to accommodate higher priorities in a constrained budget," Michael Hargrove, a technical adviser at the Air Force's strategic deterrence and nuclear integration directorate, said in a written response to questions. "We are slowing modernization, terminating or deferring numerous acquisition programs, but at the same time protecting the key programs most critical to future Air Force capabilities."

"It was purely a budget-driven decision," agreed one retired Air Force cruise missile program official in an interview this week. The former official requested anonymity in describing closed-door Pentagon discussions.

The Air Force had previously intended to spend more than $800 million on the LRSO research and development effort by 2015 . Given the latest program changes, the service is now slated to spend roughly $625 million on design and development of the new cruise missile by 2017, according to the new budget figures.

To meet a congressional spending-reductions mandate passed into law last year, the Defense Department has cut $259 billion from its five-year budget plan and a total of $487 billion over the next decade.

Conservative nuclear-weapon advocates on Capitol Hill view the multiple program delays as signaling failure by President Obama to fully fund nuclear armament and platform programs in coming years. The White House promised increased funding for nuclear arsenal and infrastructure modernization in the run-up to the Senate's December 2010 ratification of the U.S.-Russian New START arms control agreement.

"Delays of this [LRSO] program would only further confirm the administration's abandonment of its promises to modernize our nuclear forces," Representative Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said on Thursday in response to questions.

Turner, who chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, recently led nearly three dozen other GOP lawmakers in calling on the White House to protect nuclear efforts from spending cuts.

He has also signaled plans to introduce new legislation aimed at holding Obama to nuclear program funding levels laid out more than a year ago in a so-called " Section 1251 Update " report. The White House had committed to requesting more than $85 billion over the next 10 years for constructing new nuclear research and production facilities and overhaul aging warheads.

Additional billions of dollars would be spent on modernizing nuclear delivery platforms including submarines, bomber aircraft and missiles.

In a dueling legislative initiative, Representative Edward Markey, D-Mass., and 34 other like-minded lawmakers on Feb. 8 introduced the so-called "SANE" Act of 2012, short for a "Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures."

Formally dubbed H.R. 3974 , the measure would cut $100 billion in nuclear spending over the next decade by reducing new ballistic missile submarines from 12 to eight, delaying development of a nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, and reducing the number of fielded ICBMs, among other provisions.

In response to questions, Markey on Friday said he would support a delay in the LRSO cruise missile effort and a reassessment as to whether the weapon is even needed at all. The SANE Act does not address planned funding for this missile.

"A delay is prudent in this budget environment, but really we should reconsider whether this nuclear capability is even necessary for our 21st century needs," said Markey, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Massachusetts Democrat would additionally support canceling the nuclear mission for the future bomber, known as the Long-Range Strike aircraft, though such a provision also is not included in the legislation he is co-sponsoring, his office told Global Security Newswire .

With today's cruise missile gradually aging, it is unclear whether the two-year delay for the LRSO missile would pose a problem for equipping the aging B-52 bombers or the future nuclear-capable Long-Range Strike bomber. The reams of new budget documents do not appear to include a fielding date for the new missile.

In the fiscal 2013 budget, the Pentagon preserved plans to go forward with developing and building 80 to 100 of the new-design bomber aircraft, adding that it could avoid unnecessary development expense by employing many technologies available today.

The future strike aircraft "will not need the same capabilities that were planned for the previous Next Generation Bomber," according to a Defense budget overview report . "The new bomber will incorporate many subsystems ... and technologies that are already proven."

The Long-Range Strike bomber -- which the Air Force now estimates at $550 million per aircraft -- will be ready for initial fielding in the mid-2020s, according to a service spokeswoman.

The Obama administration's 2010 update report on nuclear efforts said that today's B-52 aircraft -- the only bomber that carries nuclear-tipped Air Launched Cruise Missiles -- will remain "in the inventory through at least 2035 to continue to meet both nuclear and conventional mission requirements."

The Air Force said in its 2013 budget documents that it plans to retain today's Air Launched Cruise Missiles through 2030, and is currently undertaking a maintenance program to ensure the weapon continues to perform properly. Roughly 1,140 of the cruise missile's nuclear version, the AGM-86B, are currently in the Air Force arsenal.

"Service life extension of this critical weapon is essential to meet United States Strategic Command deliberate planning requirements," the new Air Force research and development planning charts state. The service in 2013 plans to spend more than $430,000 on an "aging and surveillance program" aimed at keeping the cruise missile's key components functioning.

In the meantime, the Air Force is working on the LRSO Analysis of Alternatives, which will "define the platform requirements, provide cost-sensitive comparisons, validate threats, and establish measures of effectiveness, and assess candidate systems for eventual procurement and production," according to the Section 1251 Update report.

Hargrove, the Air Force technical adviser, said that despite the funding crunch, the Air Force was able to include the $2 million in its 2013 plan so it could complete the major analysis, which began over the past few months.

The Air Force is also drafting its acquisition and contracting strategy for the future missile, according to the 2013 budget documents. The service plans to take Long-Range Stand-Off missile program plans to the Pentagon's top-level Defense Acquisition Board before the end of calendar 2013 for formal review and approval, which would allow it to move into the technology development phase.

Air Force documents show that this "Milestone A" decision -- led by the Pentagon's top acquisition official -- is to be taken during the first quarter of fiscal 2014, which begins on Oct. 1, 2013. A contract award for initial technology development would be made a year later, during the first quarter of fiscal 2015.

Some concerns, though, are already bubbling about the projected pace of development for the future missile.

After funding the LRSO effort in the single-digit millions of dollars in fiscal 2013 and 2014, the Air Force intends to boost spending on the cruise missile's development to $41.7 million in 2015. Research and development funding then would leapfrog more than 400 percent to $209.1 million in fiscal 2016, followed by nearly 70 percent growth to $352.9 million in 2017, according to service budget charts.

The former cruise missile official said there is talk in some Defense and industry circles that the ramp-up in funds may be "too steep," and that a race to get the new system procured could increase risks that the weapon would not meet technology expectations. The deeper concern is that the LRSO missile, if rushed, could fall short of military needs.

Pentagon leaders have "said they've slipped SSBN(X) and B-61 by two years," said the former official, referring to the future ballistic missile submarine and the nuclear bomb life-extension effort. "They've said that will give them more time to design and mature their plans."

The question now, the cruise missile expert said, "is that if you go from spending $2 million in 2013 to $200 million in 2016, [are] you ramping up [the LRSO program] too fast?"

One alternative approach, the former official added, could be to design and build one or two prototype LRSO cruise missiles, put them through flight tests to ensure the technology works, and then make any necessary changes before committing to the major funding that final development and production would demand.